Chronicle of an asylum seeker's death foretold


Cover image of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' Chronicle of a Death ForetoldIn Gabriel Garcia Marquez' novella, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, a man with 'his father's Arab eyelids and hair' was murdered in broad daylight, knifed several times against his mother's door, a breath from sanctuary.

I keep being reminded of Chronicle as I take in the submissions presented so far at the Senate inquiry into the February incidents at the Manus Island detention camps. In the novella, nearly the entire town knew of Santiago Nasar's impending death; his assassins had made a point of divulging their intent to everyone they met over the course of the day. A few, mostly women, sought to stop them but their efforts proved futile.

The prevailing impression from the Senate inquiry is one of similar inevitability and complicity. The former G4S guards who have appeared before the committee have been consistent in their assessment of the factors that facilitated the violence which left more than 70 injured and one man dead. It was not random; it was no secret.

In the press conference announcing the release of the Government-commissioned Cornall review last month, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said, 'There would have been no incident that night had there been no protests.' It is a shrunken statement against the horrific might of Reza Barati's death. Kicked repeatedly by several individuals, a large rock was then dropped on his head as he lay on the ground, cracking his skull.

Perhaps somewhere in an alternate dimension, Reza is sitting on a Melbourne train, starting another work day with a thankful prayer for the generosity of the country that had adopted him.

The tendrils of this tragedy are hopelessly entangled with the things that came before it: Kevin Rudd's decision to close all settlement options for seaborne asylum seekers, the Coalition expediting transfers to Manus Island, which pushed facilities beyond their capacity to provide humane conditions, the severe lack of security training, the requests for resource expansion that weren't met, the growing resentments against mostly Muslim detainees harboured by impoverished, mostly Christian, Papua New Guineans whose cultural identity is bound up with the land that Australia had subverted for its own politically expedient purpose, repeated G4S warnings about sharpening tensions, a meeting in which Australian and third-country settlement were confirmed non-viable.

Inevitability. Complicity. Yet the onus of the violence was placed only on detainees, with Morrison initially giving the impression that the 17 February melee occurred outside the compound. This was untrue. He also employed the language often adopted when subhuman conditions give rise to uncivil behaviour: 'This Government will not be intimidated into closing this centre [or] walking away from policies that are stopping the boats.' As Martin Mackenzie-Murray remarked recently in The Saturday Paper: 'This is what success looks like'.

Can we really live with it? If we have not yet gone too far with the death of an innocent man at a facility which our Government has outsourced, then where is our limit? Is there one?

Our senators must grapple with these questions beyond scrutinising incident details, procedures, communications and cross-agency conduct. What are they to make of the abrogation of Australia's duty of care obligations and responsibilities when it so perfectly serves the bipartisan policy of preventing boat arrivals?

If witness reports gathered by the media in the weeks after 18 February are sustained by testimonies to the inquiry, then some reckoning is due.

I can only pray that they not make a hash of the obvious conclusions, as had the priest who got pressed into performing the autopsy on Nasar's body in Chronicle. The pathologist was away and they thought at first to keep the corpse until his return. But there was no refrigerator to be found and the dogs were persistent in the heat.

Father Carmen Amador remembers many years later, 'it was as if we killed him all over again'.

Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based social commentator who contributes regularly to Eureka Street. She tweets as @foomeister .

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Manus Island, Scott Morrison, Reza Berati, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

The problem with the senate committee is that neither major party gives a toss. Don't forget it was the ALP who refused to investigate the information that Australia knew SIEVX was sighted by us and that we had a spy working with Abu Quessay and the AFP.
Marilyn | 12 June 2014

It is a gloomy prognostication you make Fatima. I hope it proves inaccurate and that the Senate inquiry does not provide an automatic stamp of approval to the sorry and fatal debacle on Manus.
Edward Fido | 13 June 2014

Very sad but does the government want the real truth and not. How shall. Put it lies. So much for being a Christian Only when it's useful. Otherwise let's behave without decency. Humane If this happened to an animal there would be an uproar but it's only a human of a different culture. Colour. Etc. not like us because we whites are so superior. . God made us equal but hey God is irrelevant 9 times out of 10. And even then. How are others ever going to like us never mind love if we treat others less than human. they will know we are Christians by our actions .
Irena | 13 June 2014

Thank you for a wonderful article, Fatima. Some telling quotes: 'Perhaps somewhere in an alternate dimension, Reza is sitting on a Melbourne train, ...'. 'the onus of the violence was placed only on detainees...'.' pushed facilities beyond their capacity to provide humane conditions, the severe lack of security training,...'. Morrison and his cohort certainly need to look further than protecting our borders. But it's all been said before. As Fatima asks us, Can we really live with it?... where is our limit?
Anne Doyle | 13 June 2014

Taking Scott Morrison's logic a step further. If there had been no Detention of assylum seekers, there would have been no need for them to protest about their treatment..
Margaret McDonald | 13 June 2014


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